By Kimberley Cleland
Neighbourliness: the relevance of local connections to mental wellbeing and positive mental health summarised here by Amanda Bradley, Northern Development Manager, Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that neighbourliness helps to build positive social capital and contributes to the improved wellbeing of communities, whanau and individuals (Hothi, Bacon, Brophy & Mulgan, 2011). The Mental Health Foundation is interested in the links between social capital and its potential to support flourishing communities and to improve positive mental health.
The New Zealand Families Commission has stated that “the more social capital that exists in a community, the greater the capacity of that community to build further stocks of social capital for the wellbeing of the collective.” (Goodrich & Sampson, 2008, p. 42) The Mental Health Foundation believes that local community projects and campaigns like Neighbours Day Aotearoa, can contribute to improving trust amongst neighbours and increasing feelings of belonging and social connectedness in local communities, all of which help us flourish and live meaningful lives.
The New Zealand Social Report (Ministry of Social Development, 2010) describes social connectedness as “the relationships people have with others and the benefits these relationships can bring to the individual as well as to society” (p. 110). It uses six indicators to measure social connectedness; telephone and internet access in the home, contact with family and friends, contact between young people and their parents, trust in others, loneliness, and voluntary work. Most of these indicators show improvement over time and compare reasonably well internationally. Inequalities though are still evident, for example Maori, Pacific and Asian people are more likely than European to experience loneliness, a risk factor for developing depression (e.g. Hagerty & Williams, 1999).
There is evidence to support that some populations are more at risk of the effects of social fragmentation (for example loneliness and mental illness) including; children and adolescents (Morgan & Haglund, 2009), older people (Gale, Dennison, Cooper & Sayer, 2011; Walker & Hiller, 2007) and unemployed women (Ivory, Collings, Blakely & Dew, 2011).
Recommended Evidence Informed Approaches
Build Local Connections
Thriving neighbourhoods are connected
Local communities, including neighbourhoods, play a significant role in wellbeing and our daily connections with others. Active engagement acts of neighbourliness that build social connections and social support can create buffers to chronic stressors and help us conform to healthy social norms, therefore having a positive impact on life expectancy (Holt-Lunstad, Smith & Layton, 2011).
The Mental Health Foundation encourages opportunities (formal and informal) to build relationships and connections in local communities with the goal of improving the positive mental health of populations.
Create Opportunities at a Local Level for Cooperation and Participation
Thriving neighbourhoods are resilient and sustainable
It is well established that the environment has an influence on wellbeing; pollutants and negative features e.g. unkept parks and playgrounds, noise and rubbish, can act as psychosocial stressors as well as affect our physical health (Carter, Williams, Paterson & Iustini, 2008). When communities are empowered to act on and address such issues, a sense of control and self-determination over local circumstances contribute to feelings of belonging and wellbeing (Hothi, Bacon, Brophy & Mulgan, 2011).
Facilitate Trusting Relationships
Good neighbourhoods are safe
Feelings of trust and belonging are an essential part of a safe neighbourhood and contribute to building social capital (Goodrich & Sampson, 2008). Neighbourhoods with high levels of trust are cooperative, community minded and resilient. Trust at a local level can be evident in simple neighbourly acts e.g. keeping an eye on children playing or feeding your pets when someone goes on a short holiday (Goodrich & Sampson, 2008). When local community relationships are built on acceptance, respect and trust, it is easier to collaborate on projects that work towards improving local quality of life, creating a sense of control and influence over the circumstances of the neighbourhood (Hothi, Bacon, Brophy & Mulgan, 2011).
The Mental Health Foundations vision is for a society where all people flourish and we view mental health as a positive resource that can lead to individual and family and whanau resilience and improved social relationships, and allow us to respond effectively to the global challenges before us. It makes sense to support the promotion of simple activities like neighbourliness that build local connections, nurture trusting relationships and create opportunities for local participation and cooperation all of which build social capital and positive mental wellbeing.